Find his plays incomprehensible? Well, then, you’re not worthy!
By Cynthia Citron
LOS ANGELES – I discovered something very interesting when I interviewed poet-playwright Murray Mednick last week: If you want to get a provocative interview, start by making the subject angry.
I begin by remarking, quite innocently, that I don’t understand his plays. Innocent, but terminally tactless.
“You want me to explain my plays to you?” he roars. “I don’t explain my plays to people who are too stupid to understand them.” Then, after he berates me for a few more excruciating minutes—“I have no mercy,” he later says—he subsides and says,
“First of all, I’m a poet, not a playwright.”
And apparently understood by everyone but me. He has won an OBIE, an Ovation Lifetime Achievement Award from LA Stage Alliance, a Career Achievement Award from LA Weekly, a Local Hero Award from Back Stage West, a Margaret Harford Award for Sustained Excellence in Theater from the LA Drama Critics Circle, an American Theater Critics Association Best New Play citation, as well as two Rockefeller Foundation grants and a Guggenheim fellowship.
In addition, he founded and for 17 years served as artistic director of Padua Hills Playwrights Workshop/Festival, which he ran from 1978 to 1995 on an estate in the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains
“We’re all a little tense right now,” director Guy Zimmerman says, “since we’re opening Murray’s new play here next week.”
“Here” being the Lounge Theatres on Santa Monica Boulevard, where Mednick’s The Fool and the Red Queen will premiere tomorrow night.
No One’s Fool, Everyone’s Fool
The three of us are sitting in the red plush seats of the theater while a team of carpenters works onstage, creating the play’s set. They are constructing a smooth church interior, painted a soft, creamy yellowish.
“Murray was a pioneer Off-Broadway in the ’60s and ’70s,” Zimmerman says. “It was a vigorous avant-garde, seeking the most compressed statement of what the playwright was trying to say. Now, in L.A. it’s ‘inconvenient entertainment.’ The language can be very opaque.”
“I deal with language as opposed to plot,” Mednick says. “It’s not chronological, it’s thematic. You have to have an understanding of theater.”
The Fool and the Red Queen is a compilation of the sixth and seventh of his “Gary” series of plays. (“The eighth will be out next year,” he notes.) “But each of the plays can stand completely on its own,” Zimmerman says.
The cycle revolves around Mednick’s character Gary Bean, an unemployed actor, and began in 1997 with Tirade for Three, which was Zimmerman’s first directing assignment with Mednick. It deals with a man trying to come to terms with his son’s murder. Pinteresque in its constricted single-word dialogue, it is “a distillation of the tragic effect,” according to Zimmerman.
“It’s unique,” Mednick says. “I’m not doing what anybody else is doing.”
“The plays are a new experiment,” Zimmerman adds. “That’s what motivates him. He’s grappling with the unknown in the characters.”
“Gary is rebelling,” Mednick says. “He’s trying to be true and not self-aggrandizing. The plays aren’t character-driven, they’re asking existential questions: ‘What’s going on? Why am I here? Who are my friends?’ If people don’t understand it, I don’t give a shit. I care whether the play works and rings true for me.
“I believe in extremes, otherwise you don’t get to the truth,” he continues. “You have to go deep. The feeling is there, and the awareness and energy of the actors will transform the audience. But the audience has to have some background and interest to ‘get’ a play; they have to be willing to pay attention. It’s a creative collaboration between the players and the audience, and it often makes them uncomfortable. [Sometimes] people aren’t willing to pay the price, and I’m not willing to compromise.”
“The actors speak what sounds like ordinary dialogue,” Zimmerman interjects, “but it’s all in iambic verse, very rhythmic. And from rhythm comes timing. The actors have to trust their bodies.”
“It’s metaphysical vaudeville,” Mednick says.
The Hills Are Alive
Vaudeville, in fact, was one of Mednick’s early influences. Growing up in the Catskills, he worked as a waiter at the Borscht Belt resorts, absorbing the attitudes and humor of the Jewish comedians who entertained there.
“I have one foot in the circus and one foot in the synagogue,” he says. “I have a Jewish sensitivity, and, as a poet, I was greatly influenced by Allen Ginsberg.” As a playwright, he adds, his influences were Beckett, Ionesco, and Pirandello. “As a contemporary Jewish poet, I felt obligated to show my solidarity with the Jewish people. I also felt obligated to write about the Holocaust because it was unforgivable, unmentionable, and disgraceful.”
Mednick considers himself a “contemporary hipster, an inheritor of the Beats.” The Beats were “street-oriented poets concerned with authenticity,” he notes. He served as a playwright-in-residence at Theatre Genesis, a group of post-Beat playwrights creating experimental theater off-off-Broadway.
The group also developed a commune in Pennsylvania where actors and playwrights lived together for three months. “And it wasn’t easy,” Mednick says. They worked in improv, the actors creating their own characters and monologues and the playwrights providing the interaction.
During that decade, 1964–74, Mednick wrote The Hawk, The Hunter, and Deer Kill, for which he won a 1970 OBIE Award for Outstanding Play. Moving to Los Angeles, he founded Padua Hills Playwrights Workshop/Festival and became its artistic director. Imbued with Mednick’s passion for language, the workshops brought together “serious” playwrights who wrote from 9 am to 5 pm.
“It was like a painting studio,” Zimmerman says. “They were doing the work right there, writing all week and then presenting their plays. The dialogue is the action. It’s the horse that the actor rides out on. The physical action is natural, and it happens naturally. It’s the same principle that Pinter used: inaction as behavior.”
The workshop as a community provided creative nourishment to playwrights such as Sam Shepard, John Steppling, Maria Irene Fornes, David Henry Hwang, John O’Keefe, and Jon Robin Baitz. Mednick gave it up in 1995 to get on with his own writing.
In 2001, however, Zimmerman picked up the gauntlet and became the artistic director of Mednick’s new Padua Playwrights Productions, a company that produces new plays in Los Angeles and then moves them, whenever possible, to New York and venues abroad. Zimmerman, a writer and playwright, has staged about 25 Padua plays that have won numerous awards. His own new play, The Black Glass, will premiere in June at Open Fist Theatre as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival. In addition, he is associate editor of the arts-and-culture website Times Quotidian and writes essays about film, theater, art, science, and politics for a profusion of publications.
The Fool and the Red Queen, which will also be part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival, will reunite a band of long-time Padua actors—including Peggy Blow, Bill Celentano, John Diehl, Jack Kehler, Gray Palmer, and Julia Prud’homme. All of them are, of course, proficient in Mednick’s poetic language.
The Fool and the Red Queen, presented by Padua Playwrights and produced by Theatre Planners, opens tomorrow night. Lounge Theatres, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm, through June 24. Tickets: $25. (323) 960-7740 www.plays411.com/RedQueen.
Citron is Los Angeles bureau chief of San Diego Jewish World. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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